Reading The Magus by John Fowles
“A lot of people” have written about their pandemic activities. Some catch up on housekeeping—disposing of evidence forgotten in the basement these last twenty years, replacing the front rotors on the ’67 Porsche 911, or burying the cat. There are self-improvement types—they learn Mandarin, bake sourdough bread, or start on that Charles Atlas course they bought off the back of a comic book. They take online classes or write a memoir. Some of my more literary acquaintances say, “I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace (or Ulysses), and now I finally have the time.”
As a retired person, I don’t find myself with more discretionary free time than I had pre-pandemic. But I do have this book that I’ve wanted to read for more than fifty years and have never managed to get traction in—The Magus by John Fowles. Will 2020 finally be the year for The Magus and me? I really loved the 1965 movie The Collector, based on Fowles’s literary debut of the same name. All right, I admit, my 16-year-old psyche was transfixed and inspired by the beauty, vulnerability, and toughness of Samantha Eggar (Victoria Louise Samantha Marie Elizabeth Therese Eggar to her close friends). I also enjoyed the cunning psycho played by Terence Stamp, (just as I used to enjoy Oliver Reed, Alan Bates and other moody Brits who appeared in British-American films of the era). I bought the book, The Collector, and it was a swell read. So when The Magus came out in ’65, I was eager to read it.
I think The Magus was the first book I ever tried to read that I found too difficult to finish. There had been plenty of novels during my distinguished career as an English major that I threw across the room (Great Expectations), or bailed on and read the Cliff’s Notes (Moby Dick). Nonetheless, I thought I was a pretty bright kid, and had never met a novel I couldn’t beat. But The Magus was a challenge. First off, it is long. My current volume (I’m reading Fowles 1977 “revised version”) is 656 pages, and I’m a notoriously slow reader. Secondly, it’s a “literary” novel, not a thriller like The Collector, so it’s a bit of a slog. But it’s supposed to be good—The Magus made the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels, and hit #67 on the BBC’s “Big Read” chart. Above all though, it is a mystery, which is perhaps one reason I’ve stuck with it.
Literary slog or not, there is discernible action, but the plot tends to get murky at times, not in the least because Fowles is introspective and wordy. A young man, perhaps in his late 20s, Nicholas Urfe in jolly old England has a brief affair with an Aussie girl, Alison. He doesn’t think he loves her and seeks to get away. He takes a job teaching English at a boys’ school on a Greek island, Phraxos, and there he meets—what else—a wealthy Greek, Conchis. Conscious—oops, pardon me—Conchis (about 60 years of age?) lives in seclusion on Phraxos, and there are hints Conchis may have betrayed Greek partisans or collaborated with the Nazis during WWII. Conchis invites Nicholas to his secluded house, Bourani, where he entertains him with stories of his life. Conchis—and Fowles—also engage Nicholas in an abundance of philosophy, psychology, misdirection, and trickery. Nicholas meets a beautiful twenty-ish girl, Lily, at Bourani, who Conchis says was his lover during WWI. At night Conchis tells stories, while ancient gods, like Apollo, chase Lily through the garden with erect phalluses.
Why do I keep trying to read this book? Well early on, I connected with Nicholas Urfe. Although he’s a bit of a self-centered bastard, Nicholas seems to be Fowles’ Everyman. He has a degree in English lit, like me, and he’s young, apparently handsome, and scores with the dames. But none of these things satisfy Urfe. He’s also disillusioned, depressed, even suicidal.
Where will Conchis and Lily lead Urfe? I’ll have to read on, but one thing I know—after college, I would have liked to have gone off to a Greek island to teach English. Further enticement: there’s an appealing undercurrent of eroticism throughout, and an exotic setting to match. And the reader wonders, who is Lily really?
Yes, The Magus is a mystery. I have tried to read this book at least three times. Once I gave up while still in England. A couple times I got to Phraxos. No matter how far I’ve read, I can’t figure out what will happen next. So I read on. This time I have the help of recorded books, and hearing The Magus read aloud seems to help unpack its density. This time, I’ve read further than ever before, and I've climbed Mt. Parnassus with Nicholas and Alison. This time I think I’m going to make it to the end.
The ancient Greeks say that if you spend the night on Parnassus, you’ll either become inspired or go mad. Perhaps reading The Magus to the end will have similar results.
Have you ever read The Magus? What's your pandemic reading?